The Link Between Phthalates and Cancer

Should You Avoid Phthalates?

Woman smelling perfume
Dan Dalton/Caiaimage/Getty Images

A definitive link between phthalates and cancer has not been established. However, some people avoid phthalates to minimize the risk, if any, of developing cancer or reduce the risk of cancer recurrence.

What Are Phthalates?

Phthalates are very prominent chemicals in the lives of American consumers. They help make plastic flexible, extend the life of fragrances, and help prevent nail polish from chipping. Any product made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is a source of phthalates. They get ingested in tiny amounts with food and drink that is stored in containers made of materials that contain phthalates.

Phthalates are quickly broken down in the body into metabolites and pass out of the body through the urine. The US Centers for Disease Control researchers found measurable levels of phthalates breakdown products in the urine of the general population. Women were also likely to have metabolites of the phthalates used in soaps, shampoos, and cosmetic products.

The bottom line is that, yes, we are exposed to phthalates and they are passing through our bodies. Is this a health risk?

The Problem With Phthalates

Industry groups, such as the American Chemistry Council, say phthalates pose no danger to humans, while environmental groups, such as Greenpeace, consider phthalates a possible carcinogen. The FDA says there is insufficient proof that they're dangerous, so for now, the use of phthalates in cosmetic products is permissible in the United States.

However, phthalates are banned from all personal care products in Europe. In the United States the National Institute of Health (NIH) and Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) have each expressed concern. For example, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 prohibits the manufacture or sale of toys containing certain levels of phthalates in the United States.

How to Avoid Phthalates

Avoiding phthalates takes some effort. To minimize exposure, avoid buying/installing vinyl products in your home, such as vinyl tile and shower curtains, and use personal care products that are labeled as "phthalate free."

The US Food and Drug Administration has a list of cosmetic products and their phthalate content: 2010 Survey of Cosmetics for Phthalate Content. Diethylphthalate (DEP) is the phthalate found in cosmetic and personal care products and may be listed on the ingredients. However, manufacturers don't have to list individual fragrance ingredients, so the FDA recommends avoiding any product that lists fragrance as an ingredient if you wish to avoid phthalates.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
  • "Phthalates Q & A." American Chemistry Council. 9 Feb. 2007 [].
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National Biomonitoring Program, Factsheet "Phthalates."
  • Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008Library of Congress. 
  • David Servan-Schreiber, MD, PhD. "Anticancer: A New Way of Life." Viking Penguin, 2008.
  • Kenneth Green, D Env. "Phthalates and Human Health." July 2000. [].
  • "Phthalates and Cosmetic Products." U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 7 Feb. 2008 [].